Charles Ly (b. 1984, San Jose, CA) received a BFA from Laguna College of Art and Design in 2008 and is currently based in East Hampton, NY. Most recently, his work has been exhibited at Harper’s, Los Angeles, New York, and East Hampton, (2021 and 2020); Halsey McKay Gallery, East Hampton (2021); EXPO Chicago, online (2021); Rental Gallery, East Hampton (2020); and Guild Hall, East Hampton (2016).
THAT: Tell us about your practice.
CL: I like to think about each painting on the macro and micro, seeing the painting as a whole and then zooming in, heavily focusing on details in some areas while allowing for an out-of-focus perspective in others. My practice is typical in the traditional sense of studio painting. I usually sketch out my idea first so I know the layout. There are always little notes all over the drawing of what I think I might paint kind of like a blueprint. I love the process of prepping the surface of the canvas. It’s a meditative time before the painting starts. I paint mostly in oils, sometimes laying an underpainting in acrylic first. I usually paint at night, often till 3 or 4 in the morning.
THAT: Tell us about your recent solo at Harper’s - what was the genesis for that body of work?
CL: My recent body of work stems from time spent in my parent's village, Rạch Giá in Southern Vietnam on the Mekong Delta. My mother comes from a family of 12 brothers and sisters and my father, a family of 7. The majority of my relatives still live there. To experience all the generations of my parent’s families and their extended families in this one village was a formative experience. Each family member has a role in the village. One Aunt sells homemade fish sauce from a little shop on the ground floor of her home, another Aunt has a street cart where she sells rice bowls to children on their way to school, another Aunt has a pineapple plantation on the outskirts of town, and a pineapple stands at the market, one Uncle owns the rice shop in town with all different varieties and qualities of rice, another Uncle runs the dry goods store, most of these shops are run out of the front room of their homes. The Mekong Delta is a green, lush and fertile landscape. The village is surrounded by rice plains and waterways. The paintings in the show are an ode to my family there and their way of life.
THAT: Food is something that comes through strongly in your recent body of work at Harper’s. What draws you to it as a subject matter?
CL: I think for most immigrants and children of immigrants food is fundamental to maintaining our connection to our roots within the melting pot of America. It is a pillar of cultural identity. As a child, I was raised with this deep appreciation for each meal as my parents had both lived through famine during the Vietnam War. Our dinner table was often filled with members of the Vietnamese community out east and there was always something simmering on the stove. The smells of my childhood are fish sauce, ginger, lemongrass, and chicken broth. Food holds comfort, memories, stories, and ancestral information along with the sustenance it provides.
THAT: The landscape patterning in the fabrics seems like a through-line from your earlier works - can you talk a little about its significance and the process?
CL: I originally went to school for design and illustration. I grew tired of staring at the screen all day and so towards the end of my degree, I leaned more into a painting studio practice. I think the patterning stems from my design background as well as years spent hand-painting bespoke wallpaper. I love patterning and repetition and so when visiting Southern Vietnam I fell in love with the beautiful clothing the women wore there. Women in Rạch Giá all wear bright, ornate, patterned airy two-piece sets well suited to the hot and humid climate. The sets are all custom-made by the village seamstress and her shop is filled with patterned fabrics floor to ceiling. I wanted to use them in my paintings as an opportunity to tell another story within the fabrics.
THAT: Besides your work that depicts daily lives, some of your work goes on a tangent to surrealism, like Xe Lua or Cháo. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
CL: The figurative paintings can be very labor-intensive and sometimes I need a break. That’s how these bowl paintings came about. I find them fun to make and love to play with all the warm ephemeral colors that you would see in a sunset and the varying shades of blue in the ocean. They are an escape to another world. They also feel like a bit of a meditation on the interbeing of plants, animals, and humans here on earth.
THAT: What has been inspiring you lately?
CL: I started running regularly during Covid and am lucky to live close to a nature preserve with a very large network of trails. It has been great for my painting practice. Clears the head and allows for new ideas to surface. I find a lot of inspiration in time spent in nature. Music has always been an inspiring force as well and lately, I have been listening to a lot of folk and old country.
THAT: What's next for you?
CL: I am looking forward to a trip I have planned to Guatemala. When I return from that I would like to give myself some time to explore the surreal paintings more while I develop new themes for the figurative ones. I find them satisfying to paint as I don't pre-plan them so there is lots of room for experimentation and exploration as I go.
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